By the mid-noughties, the polar expedition market was saturated.
The planet’s most extreme latitudes had been thoroughly explored, and the likelihood of finding funding or sponsorship for a major journey was slim.
Remarkably, this hadn’t deterred Alex Hibbert
, an ambitious Oxford University student, who had his sights set on a big polar undertaking.
“I wanted to ski further than anyone before without support,” he says. “That was my big aim. Initially, the plan was to do so in the Antarctic on a new route.”
Over several years Alex managed to juggle university studies with the search for teammates and sponsorship. At one point, in 2007, he had a team of four together and was close to securing the required finance. However, as is often the case in the expedition world, he was let down at the very last minute, just weeks away from jetting south.
And just like that, Alex’s Antarctic dreams melted away.
With limited funds left, the determined young Brit set his sights on another frozen wasteland and the world’s largest island – Greenland. But he didn’t water down his ambition at this point and instead stuck to his aim of skiing further than anyone in polar history without outside help. “I decided, ‘Why not? Let’s go for the big prize again, the unsupported polar distance record, but let’s do it over a return route on the Greenland ice sheet’.”
Alex Hibbert (left) and George Bullard (right) were only 19 and 21.
With an out-and-back route planned across the entire hulking Greenland ice-cap, Alex would be able to make enough mileage to bring back the record, which previously stood at 1070 miles.
The original team and sponsors having pulled out, Alex only had a few short months to find alternative support and new teammates. He managed to persuade a previous sponsor to headline the trip and settled upon a lithe open water swimmer named George Bullard as his new companion, noting that successful polar distance expeditions were often two-man teams.
What was remarkable about this pairing was that Alex was 21 and George only 19, and they had very limited polar experience between them. In fact, George had never skied with a sledge before.
I relished the simplicity of the journey ahead. There was no momentous speech made. We simply got down to work immediately.
You might wonder how they thought they could take on such a challenge.
“Youthful exuberance and a slight lack of understanding of what it was really going to be like,” explains Alex in hindsight. “If you haven’t been on an expedition before, you don’t quite know what you don’t know.”
But the determined student, son of a successful Naval Officer, had confidence in his meticulous planning: “If we did adequate training, I brought together a team of talented people, I did my sums correctly and we had the right equipment, I couldn’t see why it wasn’t possible to go from zero to 100 extremely rapidly.”
Taking a breather during the Arctic expedition.
In March 2008, Alex and George were dropped by helicopter on the southeastern coast of Greenland. In The Long Haul
, Hibbert’s book on the expedition, he writes: “I relished the simplicity of the journey ahead. There was no momentous speech made. We simply got down to work immediately.”
The pair began their journey by clawing their way up the steep glaciated coastline and onto the ice-cap itself, before skiing northwest in a diagonal line to the opposite coast. They stashed stores of food along the way for their return journey.
Behind them, they were pulling sledges that contained 195kg of supplies and equipment.
With a minimum of fuss, they inched their way across the vast white hinterland. Some days they made good progress, covering 10-15 miles or so. Other days they were almost brought to a standstill due to bumpy ice and snow formations called sastrugi, melting pools of water, crevasse fields, and occasional blizzards.
After 71 days and 716 miles, they reached the opposite coast, their turn-around point and halfway marker in the journey.
Despite having never been on an expedition together, Alex and George had formed a solid bond. “It could have ended up a disaster,” he says. “It could have quite easily led to an accident or a big mistake or us not getting on. It could have led to a number of things, but as it happened, it led to none of those.”
An emaciated Hibbert shortly after completing the expedition (left), and a tired George Bullard photographed during the expedition (right).
Alex’s obsessive planning back in the UK had paid dividends, but that didn’t mean he was totally immune from doubt or fear, especially when it came to crevasses.
But crevasses pale in comparison to Piteraqs – vast raging wind storms that sweep all before them on the ice cap.
Luckily they didn’t encounter a Piteraq; instead, the overwhelming distance had played on Alex’s mind earlier in the journey.
“There was a period where I was starting – privately – to think, ‘Hmm, I don’t know about this’…If you start to think that you have to come up with a contingency plan, that lack of singularity and thought can be a deal-breaker.”
They skied one behind the other in formation so that the second would benefit from the flattened tracks. Days were broken down into ski sessions of 60 minutes with 10-minute rests. This routine went on for 11 to 12 hours a day until the pair settled into their tent at night, something that could become a life-or-death situation itself if high winds arose when it was time to make camp.
Evenings were spent preparing dinner from packets of dehydrated meals, tending to injuries, making equipment repairs, checking in back home and logging diary entries.
Routine was the order of the day, but humour also played a role.
“After a really bad day, with high winds in your face, cold temperatures, not much progress, difficult to navigate, you get the tent up and dive inside,” says Alex. “The two of us just sat down for two seconds and chuckled to each other because we realised the ridiculousness of where we were and what we were doing.”
Bullard probing for one of the lost food depots, to no avail.
Alex and George had buried food stores under the snow to lighten their load on the outward journey. They made a snow structure around the burial site and logged its location on their handheld GPS. What they had to do now was to hone in on these vital supplies, doglegging from depot to depot. This went smoothly until the final 100 miles, where months of exposure to the elements made it impossible to locate the last two lifelines.
“It was a feeling of, ‘Oh, s***’. We are still a long way from the coast, and we don’t have very much food left to last,” recalls Alex.
All the pair had left was half a flapjack and a few spares. With such meagre rations, they had to fight off dangerously low blood sugar levels and the risk of simultaneously fainting during skiing sessions.
I knew we were going to start to deteriorate physically pretty quickly. We were in a bit of a dark hole after that day.
The exhausted pair trod a fine line between calling for rescue and pushing on into oblivion, and Alex recognised it. “I knew that there was going to be crevassing ahead,” he says. “I knew we were going to start to deteriorate physically pretty quickly. We were in a bit of a dark hole after that day.”
It didn’t help that their expedition manager suggested they were just in range for a helicopter evacuation. But interestingly Alex had somewhat expected this scenario.
So, with remarkable confidence, he put aside thoughts of rescue and set about pushing to the finish. Helicopter evacuation or a food drop would have killed off their record plans.
88kg of flapjack during pre-expedition packing in England.
In The Long Haul Alex writes: “On the one hand was the decision of Shackleton to abandon his South Pole attempt…on the other are tragic stories of inexperienced clients and under-pressure guides on Mount Everest… I felt that the situation George and I were in fell somewhere in the middle – a calculated risk to finish the job combined with a desire to come home alive.”
And come home they did.
On the 16th July 2008, the pair hauled their emaciated bodies over the finish line, having journeyed some 1374 miles in 113 days. Nobody in history had travelled further without support on foot in the polar regions.
Pen Hadow, the only person to have trekked from Canada to the North Pole without resupply, said: “The figures alone are astounding. It rightly deserves to be remembered as a classic polar achievement, regardless of its moment in history.”
Bullard skis onto a refrozen melt pool.
Three years later Aleksander Gamme of Norway skied 1,404 miles to the South Pole and back. This broke the record for the longest unsupported polar journey in history, and it remains so to this day.
However, Hibbert and Bullard’s journey is still the Arctic benchmark. It’s even more remarkable when you consider they were barely out of their teens. “I was driven by a combination of confidence and overconfidence,” says Alex. “I was very aware at the time of our lack of experience, but I was monumentally confident in my ability to overcome problems as they arose. That was really the key.”
A decade on from the Long Haul expedition, Alex has made a career from polar travel and plans to lead the first team to ski to the North Pole without support in winter.
The story of his and George’s record-breaking journey is one of dreaming big and having boundless ambition, sure, but not at the expense of careful planning and forethought, a keen sense of realism, and a commitment to clear thinking and hard work.
In an adventure community where we are constantly sold dreamy ideas of pushing the envelope in far-flung lands, we would do well to pay attention to the ingredients that successfully helped these two young inexperienced Brits claim a blue ribbon polar record.
Alex Hibbert's book on the expedition, The Long Haul
, tells this epic story in full, and you can keep up with his plans for future expeditions on his Instragram